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Supporting Armed Forces children

Donna McCartney, a Parent Support Officer with the Children’s Education Advisory Service (CEAS), shares experiences of children whose parents are in the Armed Forces and what this can mean to them and their education. Donna also provides useful tips for professionals who are supporting them in school.

“CEAS employs four Parent Support Officers (PSOs) who cover four regions of the UK and liaise with schools overseas. We provide support through case work with individual families which aims to:

  • build partnerships between parent, schools and other service providers
  • prevent and resolve disagreements and complaints relating to the education of Service Children
  • provide clear, accurate and impartial information and advice regarding the education of Service children

(Find more information about CEAS here.)

We are increasingly aware of the impact of deployment and military service on those serving in our Armed Forces. There is often less awareness of the impact this has on the children and young people within Service families. The Armed Forces community is a reflection of society in general; it is very diverse and includes people from many backgrounds, countries and cultures. As a reflection of society, the Armed Forces community includes children and young people who have English as an additional language, disabilities, medical issues or learning difficulties which may require additional support. However, there are some unique aspects to Armed Forces life which can create additional opportunities for children and young people or sometimes even greater challenges for those with additional support needs.

Mobility and interrupted learning

Mobility refers to the whole family moving form one location to another, resulting in a move of school for the child or young person. Many families from the Armed Forces community move within the UK and the rest of the world on a regular basis with some families moving approximately every 2 years.

Most Service children are able to cope with these changes and accept the fresh opportunities a change of home and school offers however some children and young people require additional support to ensure a successful transition to a new school. This is particularly important if a child or young person has identified support needs as education systems can vary significantly between the different regions of the UK and this can make moving between them difficult. Forward planning can sometimes be difficult when timescales for moving are different to those required by education authorities to plan and ensure appropriate and continuous education for Service children.

Change can be highly emotive. Children may be leaving their extended family network and friends to start again in another area with a different education system. Children may arrive at a school to find that their new class is covering a topic they have studied previously or that they have a gap in their learning. Children and young people may have had an established and trusted support network within their previous school which helped them make progress in their learning however at the new school this will take time to establish. Feeling like the only one who doesn’t know how to do something but not knowing who you can trust to talk to about it can lead to feelings of isolation. Interrupted learning can have an impact on a young person’s self-esteem and lead to feelings of despondency.

Separation and military deployment

Deployment refers to the Service person being away from home, either on an operation or a long term training exercise, but not necessarily to an area of conflict. During periods of deployment children and young people are separated from one (sometimes both) of their parents for long periods of time and this can cause anxiety for children and young people. Military deployment can be a time of uncertainty and high emotion for all involved. Many children and young people witness their remaining parent’s anxiety and can experience significant changes at home during this time.

A parent leaving on active duty can also increase the responsibilities placed on the children and young people who may have to assume the role of young carer to support the parent at home. This could involve taking younger siblings to and from school, helping more with chores and providing increased emotional support to the parent left at home. This can have an impact on the way in which a child or young person prioritises schoolwork whilst their serving parent is deployed.

Children may worry about the safety of the deployed parent whilst also worrying about the wellbeing of the parent at home. Children and young people in this situation can sometimes feel a lack of control over what they are experiencing which could result in anger, upset and  behavioural changes. The family dynamics repeatedly change through the cycle of deployment and the parent returning back home.


As mentioned earlier many Service families are able to cope well with the challenges Service life brings but for some children it can lead to intense feelings of isolation.

The passage below was written by Ishbel who is 13 years old. Her father is currently serving with the Army overseas and her mother is a veteran. Ishbel was asked to describe an occasion when family and friends were important to her. Ishbel’s insight highlights issues which will be familiar to many children from Service families and identifies why their lifestyle may result in them requiring additional support:

The arrival of autumn was well on its way. Leaves were no longer a dull green, but a wonderful pallet of colours dancing in the wind. If you watched closely, you would notice that one by one, each leaf would involuntarily release its grasp and float softly to the ground. There, each leaf lay, piled on top of one another, waiting for the wind to blow them apart. Each leaf, apart from one. This leaf was not dancing merrily, nor waiting patiently on the ground. Instead. It lay isolated, so absent and pained, as if it were longing to be blossoming on a tree again. I understand how that vacant leaf feels, downcast and counting down the days. Not many people do though, and that is the problem.

Ishbel’s account identifies very clearly the feelings of isolation and a lack of a sense of belonging. Providing the right opportunities and the right environment to enable Service children to express their feelings and have their voices heard can help to overcome these feelings and support them to achieve positive outcomes both academically and socially. Below are just a few tips for staff working with pupils from service families to help ensure this happens.

Top tips for support 

  • Take time to understand and better appreciate the impact of Service life on children and young people, their development, and their long-term psychological health.
  • Acknowledge each child and young person as an individual. Acknowledge their past achievements and experiences but also be mindful of the impact your actions may have when they move next. How can you help prepare them for transition into a different country or curriculum?
  • Be prepared for potential mood or behaviour changes in children, young people and their parents when a separation is due or occurring.
  • Know how to actively listen and respond to tricky questions appropriately without giving false assurances.
  • Don’t force children and young people to talk if they don’t want to but make sure that they know you or someone else is available should they want to talk.
  • Be prepared for a potential drop in attainment and acknowledge this will most likely be temporary.
  • Be aware that some children and young people may have to take on a young carer’s role and this might have an impact on completing homework and getting to school on time. Show an understanding and possibly offer time during the school day for studying or homework to be completed.
  • Don’t expect everything to return to ‘normal’ when an absent parent returns as readjustment can take a long time.

Service Children Education have many useful resources on supporting children from Service families including deployment: building resilience with children and young people, service children on the move and managing challenging behaviour.

The Royal Caledonian Education Trust also has an education programme and work with schools and in communities providing advice, educational resources and training to help professionals recognise and support children and young people from Service families who may be struggling to cope in school.

Contact the Enquire Helpline on 0345 123 2303

Helpline is closed Saturday/Sunday.


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